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What can the Giants’ preseason opener tell us about camp position battles?

The Giants’ training camp has had heated battles, what does the first preseason game tell us about them?

New York Giants v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The New York Giants fell to the Detroit Lions 21-16 Friday in a fourth-quarter loss that resembled how they beat opposing teams a year ago.

But while the loss itself is frustrating, we shouldn’t concentrate too much on the final score. Both teams were focused more on working on specific aspects of their offense and defense, as opposed to actively trying to win a regular season game.

Instead, we should look at the events of the game as a window into the state of the team in the middle of August. The Giants are working on building their offense and defense, as well as trying to figure out how their 90-man roster will come together as a 53-man roster.

We don’t really know what the coaching staff’s vision for the team is in 2023, but we do know that camp has had several heated roster battles. What can the developments in the first preseason game tell us about those camp battles?

The offensive line is going to be fluid

This is the obvious place to start and it will be a closely-watched storyline over the next three weeks.

The good news is that rookie center John Michael Schmitz was largely solid throughout the first half. He didn’t look out-matched and was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Giants’ linemen. The bad news is that the players to either side of him are in contention to be starters as well and they looked like anonymous second-teamers. Right guard Mark Glowinski (who didn’t play) is still the likely starter at right guard, but he wasn’t great last year.

Ezeudu likely has the highest ceiling of the potential starting guards, particularly considering his development as a rookie was interrupted by injury. But while future development is all well and good, the Giants need their offensive line to take a step forward in the present.

Granted, we didn’t get a look at Tyre Phillips or Devery Hamilton due to injury. Either could be an option as the left or right guards, or for swing tackle.

Speaking of swing tackle, Matt Peart played to expectations after the first three years of his career. He appeared steady to start the game, and was fine ... right up until he wasn’t.

Few (if any) teams have really reliable depth along their offensive line, and injuries to starters usually cause heartburn. The potentially good news is that Phillips and Hamilton did see reps during the regular season last year and played about as well as could be expected for backups.

I fully expect the Giants’ coaches to continue to mix and match to try and find their best five, six, and seven linemen.

The wide receiver depth chart will be interesting

The Giants rested their “entrenched” starters against the Lions, but it’s interesting that they had several likely starters on the field for the start of the game.

It isn’t terribly surprising that Jalin Hyatt was on the field for the first preseason game. The rookie needs as many snaps as he can get to acclimate to the NFL. But it is surprising that Isaiah Hodgins started the game, considering he seems to be in line for a starting job in 2023. Darius Slayton had the night off, as did Parris Campbell and Sterling Shepard. Campbell and Shepard not playing wasn’t surprising: Shepard has dealt with significant injuries over the last two years, and Campbell is reportedly managing knee tendinitis.

But Hodgins getting work while most of the rest of the non-rookie starters sat is a bit noteworthy. Not that I think Hodgins’ starting job is in jeopardy, but rather the Giants just don’t have that many natural outside receivers. Shepard has done it, and Hyatt can as well, but most of their receivers outside of Hodgins and Slayton are natural slot receivers.

Coach Brian Daboll said he thought the work would be good for Hodgins because he was only with the Giants for part of last season.

The injury to Collin Johnson makes the dynamics even more interesting, and could bode well for David Sills depending on its severity. Daboll said Saturday that Johnson and other injured players were still undergoing testing and their status was “up in the air.” That isn’t ideal, as we’ve seen Sills have impressive camps against reserve players only to wilt against starting competition.

Cole Beasley and Jamison Crowder were definitely the most impressive receivers for the Giants, and the veteran receivers easily cooked the Lions’ reserve defensive backs.

It’s possible that Beasley and Crowder could both force their way onto the roster and Shepard off. In that case, there’s a real chance that Slayton and Hodgins are the Giants’ only receivers over 6-foot and 200 pounds.

How the Giants construct their receiving corps will be absolutely fascinating to follow over the remainder of August and into September.

Tre Hawkins III is trouble for Darnay Holmes (and Cor’Dale Flott)

We’ve talked plenty about Hawkins and his play over the last couple weeks. He has played fast and done an excellent job of playing aggressive, sticky coverage regardless of who he lines up against.

After last night, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hawkins III is the Giants’ full-time third cornerback. We could see even more of the rookie corners on the outside with Adoree’ Jackson moving inside to the slot. That would almost certainly allow the Giants to keep their best corners on the field regardless of situation, as well as have a slot corner capable of matching up when outside receivers move inside to the slot (a la A.J. Brown).

Long term, it could allow the Giants to move on from Jackson after this year with a minimum of pain.

But the Giants’ slot depth can’t be viewing the development of Hawkins with much enthusiasm beyond cheering on a teammate. Darnay Holmes desperately needs to prove that he’s more valuable than his potential cap savings. Getting pushed down the roster by a rookie isn’t great news for him in that regard — particularly in light of how frequently he was penalized a year ago.

Flott is likely safe for now. The Giants liked him enough to spend a third round pick on him a year ago. However, if he can’t push a rookie sixth rounder and winds up having to fight his way back up the depth chart going into his third year... That might not bode well for his long-term future. Likewise, Aaron Robinson could come off the PUP list only to be the CB5 or 6.

This is a great problem to have if you’re Joe Schoen, Brian Daboll, and Wink Martindale. But for guys named Darnay Holmes, Cor’Dale Flott, and Aaron Robinson ... it might just be a problem.

The numbers game at TE and RB is going to be tight

It’s worth noting, and I haven’t seen many highlight this fact, that Giants started the game in 12-personnel. They’ve reportedly made heavy use of two tight end sets throughout camp, and that makes sense given their acquisition of Darren Waller.

Ed recently projected that the Giants will keep three tight ends and four running backs on their 53-man roster. He didn’t feel great about that projection, and after last night I’m wondering if those numbers could be switched.

Both Daniel Bellinger and Lawrence Cager started the game for the Giants, and Tommy Sweeney was the first tight end off the bench once Bellinger’s night was done. Cager getting the start lines up with our projections that he’s TE3 behind Waller and Ballinger. That said, the fact that the Giants opened with an in-line and hybrid tight end on the field suggests a couple things. The first is that the Giants want both skillsets available to them, and current projections don’t include a backup for Bellinger. Sweeney played well when he was on the field and likely helped himself on the tight end depth chart.

As noted above, the Giants are going to have a very unconventional receiving corps that might only have two “big” receivers. They could be looking at Waller and Cager as the supplements to the receiving corps who make up for the fact that Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton are their only receivers who aren’t undersized. If so, they’ll likely want to keep a second “Y” tight end to have a direct backup for both Bellinger as well as Waller.

We can set Eric Gray aside as he is almost certain to make the roster as a fifth-round pick and the Giants’ primary punt returner (at least as of this writing). Likewise, Saquon Barkley and Matt Brieda are making the team. The question could now be whether James Robinson, Jashaun Corbin, or Gary Brightwell can do enough to force their way onto the roster.